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All I Asking For is My Body (Milton Murayama)

February 11, 2010

Murayama’s novel(la) may be a short one, but it’s not lacking in substance. One aspect I am very interested in is the way Murayama uses language. The novel is written in English…but…the English used is often pidgin English, incorporating Hawaiian words, phrases, and slang in addition to words and sentences in Japanese (with translations following in parenthesis). This doesn’t alienate the reader, but it definitely makes them aware of their relationship to this story and its characters — for myself, not being from Hawaii or of Japanese descent, I was reminded that this was someone else’s world, someone else’s culture. For someone who is from Hawaii and/or of Japanese descent, the experience of reading this novel would be much different. Since one of the novel’s primary themes revolves around issues of nationality vs. cultural heritage, the use of language creates a kind of tension that helps complicate this idea. The protagonist is an American citizen, but the language he uses is a medley representing different heritages (one of which is Hawaiian — something he doesn’t have in his blood). This subtly brings up the idea of America as melting pot, and serves as a nice counterbalance to the post-Pearl Harbor view of anyone of Japanese ancestry (regardless of nationality or citizenship) is unable to assimilate and is actually incapable of learning English.

I was also really interested by the motif of the body in this novel. There is a struggle between the mind and the body throughout the story, as Tosh and Kiyo are both highly intelligent, but are unable to pursue an education and are forced to do manual labor instead. The title itself brings up Tosh’s argument about how he just wants to be in control of his own body, his own life. Tosh’s and Kiyo’s attempts to become successful boxers (relying on their bodies without the accompaniment of their minds) indicate their reliance on their bodies to free them from their situation. At one point, Kiyo even says that he has no other option — schooling won’t get him a good enough job, and neither will anything else he could do. Most of the other eldest sons in the camp have given up on their minds (never enjoyed school, gave into their parents’ pressure to be filial without questioning the system, etc.) and labored in the fields solely with their bodies. When Kiyo joins the military, he makes a trade: he signs his body over to the military in order to release it from the bonds of his filial duty. It is only by bartering with his physical self that he is able to simultaneously escape and fulfill his filial duties. But the specific means by which he gets the money — learning to “padroll” (a method of cheating by knowing the odds and learning to throw the dice a certain way) — revolves around physical prowess combined with mental proficiency. He has to be able to train himself to throw in a particular manner, relying on his movements and his brain to win the money his family needs. Murayama represents the body and the mind as being two great but different powers: the body is the physical embodiment of self that cannot be separated from the intellect (which Tosh and Kiyo have in abundance, but are never able to capitalize on). It is only by using BOTH the body and the mind that Kiyo is able to move forward with his life.

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